2019 may go down in the cinematic history books as the Year of Disappointments, and “Yesterday” unfortunately continues the trend. This is a case of not only a squandered premise, but an example where the trailer is far better than the finished product. It’s easy to be fooled regarding the quality because the film is brightly energetic, loaded with classic songs from The Beatles, and is destined to be a real crowd-pleaser.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling singer-songwriter in a tiny English seaside town. After years of playing to empty rooms at local pubs and festivals, Jack’s hopes of fame are rapidly fading. Ellie (Lily James), his best friend since childhood, has shown a fierce devotion to Jack’s dream and lends her unwavering support. But one night, everything changes. There’s a mysterious blackout around the world, Jack gets hit by a bus, and he wakes up in the hospital only to discover that The Beatles have never existed.
It’s one of the most interesting sounding ideas for a movie ever, especially if you’re a music fan. There are so many directions in which the story could turn, from the moral dilemma of becoming rich and famous off the songwriting talents of others to the discovery that it’s all just a bad dream. It’s a film that feels predictable yet nothing you expect to happen does, which makes for a frustrating viewing experience that’s capped by an oddly unsatisfying conclusion.
The fantasy elements are intriguing, but the high concept premise is left with the majority of its greatness buried underneath the surface. Everything feels forced, and it’s even more frustrating that there’s zero explanation offered as to what actually happened that caused this freak disappearance of some of the most beloved songs of all time. What does transpire makes no sense, so it’s best not to think about it too much because when you examine the story more closely, the yarn starts to unravel. The script comes across as a work of fan fiction better suited for the Reddit internet boards than a screenplay worthy of a feature length film.
Despite the lack of a clear identity (is it a satire of the music industry, a generic love story, or a candy-colored music video set to the soundtrack of some of the greatest songs of all time?), there’s still much to like about this breezy, delightful fantasy. It has an infectious cheer that audiences will love, and the characters are irresistibly charming from the onset. Kate McKinnon is amusing as a greedy record executive, and musician Ed Sheeran pokes fun of his own persona by playing a version himself that would prefer the lyrics to “Hey Jude” be changed to “hey dude.”
Patel is a talented singer and when the story starts to wane, director Danny Boyle simply relies on song recognition to distract viewers from the gaping plot holes. He cranks up the volume, throws in yet another hit record, and sits back while the opening bars of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” bring on the flood of fond memories you have every time you hear it.
There’s an insincerity in the lackluster third act which proves disappointing even for a middle-of-road film like this. But “Yesterday” is designed to be an easy-to-swallow, feel-great time, and it succeeds in its mission. With lowered expectations, most will leave the film on a Beatles high, bopping and humming their way out of the theater.